‘I can breathe a little bit more.’ How student debt relief will affect 8 borrowers, in their words

For some of the more than 45 million people across the United States who have student loans, President Joe Biden’s plan for the federal government to forgive billions of dollars of student loan debt could be life-altering. For others, it could be just a drop in the bucket.

WATCH: Biden cancels student debt for millions of Americans

The total student loan debt in the U.S. is $1.6 trillion and rising.

Under this new plan, around 43 million borrowers could see some form of federal student debt relief, including up to $20,000 of debt cancellation, the White House has said. More than half of borrowers owe $20,000 or less, according to Department of Education data, and just about a third owe $10,000 or less.

This long-anticipated announcement, which fulfills Biden’s campaign promise of forgiving at least $10,000 in federal student loans, comes at a time when the cost of higher education has been on a steady incline. The cost of four-year private colleges has nearly doubled over the past 30 years, according to a 2021 report from College Board. At the same time, the price for four-year public colleges is more than two times higher than it was in 1991, even accounting for inflation. Public two-year colleges are more than 1.5 times more expensive as well.

Pell Grants used to cover about 80 percent of the cost of a four-year public college degree, the White House says. Today, they only cover about a third of the cost.

Biden’s plan, which he announced through executive action in August, makes multiple changes to the federal student loan system, including:

  • Outright eliminating $10,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers with incomes less than $125,000 a year and $20,000 in debt for federal Pell Grant recipients, 93 percent of whom come from families that earn less than $60,000 a year, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
  • Covering borrowers’ unpaid interest on federal loans, provided borrowers make their monthly payments
  • Halving what borrowers must pay on income-driven repayment plans, from 10 percent to 5 percent of their income.
  • Forgiving loans for income-driven repayment plan borrowers after 10 years of payments, instead of 20 years, for borrowers with original loans of $12,000 or less.
  • Raising the income threshold on income-driven repayment plans to 225 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $30,500. People making less than that will not have to make monthly payments on loans.

Biden also announced that payments on federal loans will restart at the end of 2022 after a two-and-a-half year pause that began under former President Donald Trump, as the nation was at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The PBS NewsHour spoke to eight borrowers of federal student loans, all of whom will be impacted by Biden’s plan.

The following quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

Evelynn_Moon 2022

Evelynn Moon
Age: 41
Profession: Director of education, Good Grief
Location: Woodbridge, New Jersey
Amount taken out in loans: $75,000
Amount left: $124,000

The changes will have a significant impact on me, and my family as well. My partner’s remaining student debt will be completely wiped out and it’s like, I can hardly believe that it will be gone. No more fighting to keep up the interest and trying to pay it down while watching the balance hardly budge on his.

Financially it matters. But mentally and emotionally — that’s huge, to just have that weight lifted. For myself, the student loan forgiveness coupled with the IDR changes, the income-driven repayment, the partial forgiveness for my loan coupled with that, my balance will be significantly reduced, my monthly payments will be significantly reduced as well. So moving from that 10 percent to 5 percent is huge for me as well personally, because we’ve saved absolutely nothing for retirement, which is scary. We had to prioritize our loans, childcare for our daughter, health care, housing costs, and now we’ll be in a place to finally prepare.

READ MORE: Federal watchdog finds potential fraud in student loan repayment plans

But at 41 years old, I’m honestly a little worried about being so late to the process. That’s just my own personal fears for the future. Did I start too late? I don’t know. It just couldn’t be a priority at the time with the loans.

I was making my payments every month, you know, for years. And then to not have that payment, even during the pause, we were finally able to put money into savings for the first time. So that way we weren’t just kind of one disaster away from really being in trouble. So for the first time we have a little bit of a cushion.


Clinical psychologist Clint Nowicke, 32, owes more than $126,000 in student loans. “Sometimes I absolutely do regret it,” he said about going into a field that required him to take out so many loans.

Clint Nowicke
Age: 32
Profession: Clinical psychologist
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Amount taken out in loans: $113,000
Amount left: $126,465

As long as you’re making payments, it won’t continue to accrue interest, that alone gives me hope, to be honest. Because prior to that, I had kind of resigned myself to never being able to have kids, to living in my little tiny condo — which I was only able to afford because of the pause in payments themselves. Knowing that by the time that I am able to make large payments on it, that it’s not doubled or tripled, it helps me look at life with a brighter future, I guess.

My concern is if you want educated professions, then that’s kind of the balance. If you want evidence-based researchers and people working under evidence-based practices … then the trade-off is that they need an extensive amount of education.

We were kind of sold this idea that if you go to school, you become a doctor, you can obtain this prestigious life. I have no idea when that’s going to kick in. Because if I knew, that would be fabulous. But sometimes I do absolutely regret it.

I would love to pay [the loans] back. I’m more than happy to pay it back, even if it takes just as long as it takes me to pay off my mortgage. But the thought of having to pay it back two or three times due to the interest is so defeating. Like why would I work to pay it off as fast as I can if nothing that I do is going to help me get there quickly?

I’ve kind of resolved that I’m going to be paying this off until I die.

richelle brooks

Richelle Brooks, a 35-year-old school principal, has more than $240,000 in student loans. She said that President Biden’s loan forgiveness plan will barely affect the amount she owes.

Richelle Brooks
Age: 35
Profession: School principal/administrator
Location: Los Angeles, California
Amount taken out in loans: $200,000
Amount left: $240,000

Obviously $10,000, considering how much I have, it doesn’t do much for me. I have about $30,000 worth of interest. So, yes, that $10,000 won’t cover my interest as it stands now. So I was hoping for full debt cancellation, obviously.

And then the public service loan forgiveness — I am excited to see if it pans out, but I know based on the past, it hasn’t. I think like 95 percent of the people that apply have not gotten any type of forgiveness. So I’m hoping with these new policies and implementations, that that is something that changes. And educators like me who are dedicating their time, their lives, their commitment to especially urban communities, can find relief.

We’re literally committing our lives to serving communities. The very least this country could do is make it free for us to serve in our communities. Like, it’s such an absurd and backwards concept that I have to pay $240,000 to be an educator in South Central Los Angeles for students that are pregnant, foster teens, incarcerated, formerly incarcerated. The most vulnerable and marginalized youth — I’m working with them. And the emotional labor, the mental labor we literally pour into these kids. And not only can we not do that for free, we have to pay to do that? It’s completely absurd.

READ MORE: Student loan debt has a lasting effect on Black borrowers, despite the latest freeze in payments

Someone brought up the point today with me, “You didn’t need to go get all of those degrees to become a principal.” I did. Because Black women have to. I can’t have a bachelor’s degree and say, “Hey, I have great ideas,” and people listen to me. That’s not how that works. They hear “Dr. Richelle Brooks” and they’re listening a little bit more.

kylie wray

Kylie Wray, 32, lives in Juneau, Alaska. She said debt forgiveness will give her and her partner “a little bit more breathing room” with their finances.

Kylie Wray
Age: 32
Profession: Insurance agent, small business owner, farmer
Location: Juneau, Alaska
Amount taken out in loans: $38,750
Amount left: $10,180

I mean, it might not be a life changing, socioeconomic ladder altering outcome. But it would certainly help me hopefully maybe get to a point where I can feel like [I have] a little bit more breathing room.

It just kind of helps us achieve goals. We’re really trying to save money and we want to be able to potentially retire one day. And we’re not even close to being there yet, obviously, but making it a possibility to be able to set some aside and feel like we’re actually like we’re working towards some sort of a goal that’s ultimately going to help us in the long haul.

When I was 18, when I first started going to school, it was like, “OK yeah, sure, sign, sign, sign.” And then I got in there, and I did all that. And then it was like six months after when we started getting those bills. And at that point it was like, “OK, wow. I’m really going to have to like plan this out into my day to day,” which eventually you get the hang of.

But things happen along the way. Like, you know, you don’t necessarily know what your income will look like and just things come up. Emergencies and things that you never could have really thought of or if you had to have an insurance claim or something like that. I mean, you just don’t always know.

meghan singh

Meghan Singh, 37, is a bilingual school psychologist in Boston. She owes about $98,000 in student loans. “I assumed that I would die with a significant amount of debt just because the interest just kept increasing,” she said.

Meghan Singh
Age: 37
Profession: Bilingual school psychologist
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Amount taken out in loans: $100,000
Amount left: $98,000

It’s an intergenerational impact for me, in that my mom is getting forgiveness, my brother is having his loan cut in half, at this point. I will have some forgiveness from it. And then because of the decisions that the Biden administration made around the public service loan forgiveness, I’m actually on track to finish within 13 years of being a public school educator, which is something I didn’t even believe would be possible.

When I first enrolled in college, my family was unhoused. So there was a significant amount of need. I was able to go to undergrad mostly on merit-based scholarships. But it wasn’t the same offer for my sister or my brother at other schools. So then [my mom] needed to take additional money out so she could get them in. And we’re the first generation of my family to finish college.

It feels like I can breathe a little bit more. That I don’t have to be as afraid of making sure that I’m keeping track of everything that I’m spending, everything that’s coming in. Since graduating from undergrad, I haven’t had less than two jobs because I want to make sure that I have everything that I need to take care of these loans and live in the city.

Quite honestly, I assumed that I would die with a significant amount of debt just because the interest just kept increasing the number no matter what I tried to do to pay things off.

At one point I had two separate loans and I consolidated them into one federal loan. But because I missed a piece of paper in the mail, all of my payment history was wiped out. It was horrific. I was legitimately physically sick for days over that because it was a significant amount of money that I lost in that error. But with the decisions from the Biden administration around the public service loan forgiveness, those were added back to my account. So that is a revolution in my life that, I know that next August I will be able to save my money and make choices that I want to make instead of choices I have to make.

marilee dempsey

Marilee Dempsey, Meghan Singh’s mother, just started contributing to a retirement two years ago. The 59-year-old real estate paralegal couldn’t save for retirement because she’d been paying back student loans she took out for her children’s education.

Marilee Dempsey (Meghan’s mother)
Age: 59
Profession: Real estate paralegal
Location: Dedham, Massachusetts
Amount taken out in loans: $60,000
Amount left: $25,000

There was a lot of pressure to [take out loans] because the [kids] had already started school and we were determined to finish. So we couldn’t finish if we didn’t pay the money. We were like trapped into — it was no other option other than taking loans. I paid what I could pay. I was a single mom. And my salary wasn’t that humongous. So, I paid what I could afford, but I couldn’t afford a whole lot, so a lot of it was loans.

READ MORE: Biden administration announces $3.9 billion in debt cancelation for former ITT Tech students

I kept having to defer it because I’d get to a point where I couldn’t afford the monthly payment and they’re like, “Oh, if you just defer it.” They made it seem like a really quick answer to not having to deal with it as opposed to, “You’re going to pay for this the rest of your life,” you know? They made it sound like if you just defer it, then you could make a payment when you could afford it. And not pointing out that the interest was going to [make it so] the loans ended up being more than the original loans because I kept having to defer.

That’s the only big thing I have left. I never got to save because I was paying school loans and college tuition. So I never got to save for my own retirement. I just got a job two years ago where they had a 401(k). So I have some now, but that’s the first job I had that I could actually contribute [to it]. Because my kids were grown and I could afford it.

juan antonio sorto 3

Juan Antonio Sorto, 37, is a first-generation Latino college student who is pursuing his PhD. He owes more than $240,000 in student loan debt. “My family, we were taught to work hard and to pay everything back, which is part of the reason none of us got into any debt until I got into debt myself, and I had to do it because of education,” he said.

Juan Antonio Sorto
Age: 37
Profession: PhD candidate, Director of community engagement for a Houston park system
Location: Houston, Texas
Amount taken out in loans: $260,000
Amount left: $240,000

My debt is associated with being a first-generation Latino college student.

I have a student debt that is over $200,000. So that doesn’t really begin to cover a dent on the issue. But it goes beyond that for me personally.

I was able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree without any debt. It was all through Pell Grant. It was also living at home. And also an affordable university that I attended for my bachelor’s degree. So in 2007, I achieved, at that time, what I perceived [as] the American dream, at least in my household, of going beyond high school — which I am the first one to graduate from high school and the first one in my family to go and get a post-secondary education.

Everyone was saying, you know, if you want to go more in this field, or any field, you need to go for a master’s degree. Well, I decided to pursue. Then that’s where I started getting into debt.

At the end of the day, you know, my family, we were taught to work hard and to pay everything back, which is part of the reason none of us got into any debt until I got into debt myself, and I had to do it because of education. And so what I’ve been frustrated with [in] this entire process — it has not necessarily been the fact that I have over $200,000 in debt, but it’s more about the systemic, in blunt, in my opinion, greed that these companies have undertaken along with the universities.

Jahan Raza 2

Jahan Raza is a 34-year-old product owner at Sotheby’s in New York City. She owes $11,900 in student loan debt. “When I look back at what I know now, I probably would have done things differently,” she said.

Jahan Raza
Age: 34
Profession: Product owner, Sotheby’s
Location: New York City, New York
Amount taken out in loans: $44,000
Amount left: $11,900

I have about $6,700 left in federal student loans, so I’m very excited to have that forgiven. I also am a little bitter about the amount that I’ve paid while we’ve been on the freeze, and interest payment freeze. I was trying to take advantage of that. And had I known this was coming, I probably would have rearranged the payments I was making to my non-federal loans versus prioritizing that one.

I think it’s a great step forward for those of us who’ve been struggling with debt, trying to work hard to pay our dues and become something in society and try to clear off your debt at the same time. It can be really difficult. So I’m very grateful.

When I look back at what I know now, I probably would have done things differently. I probably would have gone to community college first and saved myself, you know, the debt that I could have had in those two years. I would have taken scholarships more seriously and would have really tried to understand how that worked. I really didn’t have the knowledge or education to know how that worked. There’s a lot of things I would have reconsidered.

My parents couldn’t pay a cent towards my tuition. And like it just we were lower middle class and I was the youngest of four kids who were going to school. So there was no money left for me, so loans [were] really my only way of getting to school. And I know that’s me and millions and millions of other people.